A gift too large
ELMHURST, IL - JUNE 1961. Me and Gary were going down to the Pankau, him riding low on his brand new banana seat that his dad just put on, and me on the Brown Bomber that I was driving at the time--which is another story. We both had on red deck pants that stopped below the knee and tied at the waist with white rope because that's what was featured in the Sears catalog. The reason I remember our pants is because we wore them every day, like all boys do until their moms, and later their wives, figure it out. I still like my pants dirty enough to stand up on their own.
The Pankau was nothing special, just a little drug store called Pankau Drugs that we used to say we were going down to when we were actually going down to the Ben Franklin. There was nothing wrong with Ben Franklin except that it was our real destination. Ben Franklin easily had four times the penny candy as Pankau, which had better cough drops, but Ben Franklin was the predecessor of Wal-Mart and had taller shelves. It was possible, and we both knew it, to jam a guy's pockets full of stuff, but we would never do that, not then, although I would try it in time, I'm sure he never did. Keeping this small secret about our true destination made the trip more interesting. And more possible. Kid wisdom knows that to ask to go to Ben Franklin is to beg for a no. But if a kid were to say, "I'm running down to the Pankau," and added some broad gesture to indicate his willingness to pick up whatever item might be needed--it was guaranteed to produce from any mother an immediate melting of heart. And off you go.
Gary was nine, like me, but he was already over six feet tall (he eventually topped 6'8" I think). We were the kind of friends that wouldn't mention how dopey the other guy looked, no matter how dopey the other guy looked, partly because everybody looked dopey back then. But now Gary really looked dopey poking his overlong femurs into the clouds on that shortyboy bike. Not that I said anything. I was out of breath from piloting my barge.
We got to the Elmhurst Plaza. I dropped the Brown Bomber and it barely fell, the baskets were so big. It carried two bundles of newspapers on either side, two in the back basket and two in front. I was a tiny kid. This was my bike. It was sort of a business vehicle and valuable life lesson, punishment actually, and why bother with it now? I didn't bother to lock it up. I had a dream that somebody'd steal it.
Gary said where ya goin and I said Ben Franklin, but he was still down by the Pankau. "We said we were going down to the Pankau. We have to go to the Pankau first." Gary was exactly like that. He was unabashedly good, yet he never made me feel less good by his goodness. He was too good for that. So we went into Pankau first, into a burst of air conditioning, cool dry air smelling vaguely of Juicy Fruit peeling the sweat right off us, mean old Mr. Pankau watching us like hawks, us looking around for something appropriate to stand in front of.
The next moments are deeply embedded in my memory cells. I see it frame by frame. Turning a corner, there, on an endcap, at the very top, above my head--The Tumbler Set. Glorious, tall, painted with overlapping yellow and pink balls, giant-size 20oz tumblers now just $7.99! Flash frame: my mom. Pocket grab, decision, I'd do it, she needed them, we needed them, didn't we? don't we? aren't they beautiful? You get 15 tumblers. And we confirmed that a tumbler was what it looked like, which was a drinking glass, and it was.
And I did it. Yes, I did. I bought a box of tumblers for my mother for no reason at all other than I kept seeing my mother's face. Yes, I did it. Anything was worth that face. I could see her face, can still see it. I could afford fifteen 20oz tumblers. I could afford basically anything under ten dollars since that's what I made once a month for delivering The Elmhurst Press twice a week to 60 homes.
It was weird, but the box wouldn't fit any of my baskets, so I had to balance the box on the bomber and steered it back home on foot while Gary did lazy circles in the street and told me how great I was and asked whatever made me do it, and how rich was I. Gary thought I was rich because my dad worked at Sears. Everybody thought that and asked him for deals, including Gary's dad, whose wife wanted a Kenmore washer-dryer, a request that began a neighborhood stampede until my dad said no to somebody once.
What Gary really wanted was a Jag, which was a type of small bike, but what he got was a banana seat from E.J. Korvette. It wasn't a Jag, but then Gary wasn't exactly boy-sized, or even man-sized, he was huge by all standards, only his voice hadn't changed.
The bike I wanted was the bike I used to have, which was a Schwinnlike 10-speed that I bought with help from my dad. I paid half, using saved up paper route money, and my dad, who was a buyer at Sears, would get me a J.C. Higgins 10-speed on accomodation and he'd pay the balance--which actually happened--but three days later it was stolen when I ran into the Pankau and my dad took me to Kohler's junkyard and encouraged me to purchase the Brown Bomber with my last remaining savings, which was under ten bucks.
I always wondered what that story was really about from my dad's end. For me it was about being what you buy. Maybe for him it was about reverence for the product, a phrase he actually used, and one I understand, though less literally maybe.
Gary's mom grabbed her heart and couldn't get over it. She volunteered to wrap it, and Gary's older sister knew how to do stuff with ribbon, and they found me a good card and I wrote something down, and they squealed and admired me, and made me out like some kind of hero, even the men did, Gary said his dad's eyebrows shot way up when he heard the price. So this was some kind of present. Because I seemed to be the recipient.
It was 2 o'clock on a summer afternoon and it was done; the beautiful box on the organ bench dared all who passed by not to rip it open, not to see what was inside. It was too good to wait for. I had to give it to her right now, alone. I grabbed it and sprinted home and was in the kitchen before the screen door slammed. There, washing dishes, was my mother, taller than today, turning to see her 9 year old boy holding an enormous store-bought package, a gift, just for her, for no reason.
Did she ooh? did she ah? Of course. She said she'd have to wash them before she'd use them, and that she just washed the dishes, and that she'd have to clean out the cabinets to make room because they were so large, why so large? But why would I do such a thing when I don't have that kind of money? But she could make them fit. She was excited. It was thrilling.
It was an interesting feeling, this giving of gifts. I was immediately struck by its selfish aspect, by the glow that comes with showering a loved one with some extravagance out of the blue. I was struck, still am, by its delicious power.